Crossroads in the Choir
Call it quiet fire. Authority. Charisma. Mia Doi Todds coolly tranquil voice caresses the air, but her trenchant gaze holds you, riveted. She descends to earth again, still piercing your eyes, and drops poetry of hunger and need, the food of love. You dont recoil; youre on the edge of your seat. You feel like a slave. And not so strangely, it feels good.
Todds folk-related music has been around for a while, but not so long that its mysteries have been divulged or nearly exhausted. Proof of which is Manzanita, the deceptively waiflike chanteuses fifth solo release, flanking collaborations with the not-so-unlikely likes of the electro-pop unit Dntel and the avantish DJ Nobody, among a few eclectic others. A mostly stripped-down affair featuring Todds acoustic guitar and piano and precisely pristine voice, Manzanita finds Todd at an interesting juncture in her musical career, and perhaps on her path toward entirely different creative realms.
Manzanitas spare glories came about not completely through personal choice; after getting her big major-label chance with 2002s comparatively opulent The Golden State on Sony Records, produced by high-profile sound man Mitchell Froom, Todd was unceremoniously dropped by the label. On Manzanita, all decisions on the writing, arranging, recording and producing were made by Todd alone, with some help from the albums producer, Brent Rademaker of Beachwood Sparks.
Although Sony had obviously signed Todd as a credibility project, she wasnt all that surprised by the companys decision to part ways with her a year later nor was she fully bummed out. She even defends Sony to a certain degree: They knew while we were making the record that it was not gonna be huge. And according to Todd, she and Froom were for the most part left alone to craft the music without interference. They trusted Mitchell, and I was definitely involved. There was no child in the scenario, or a princess. But it wasnt me calling the shots. Whereas this time it was, more so.
Ive matured as an artist, she says. The Sony thing definitely enabled that. Manzanita was executive-produced by Todd herself, which means she obtained the services of her friend Rademaker to play bass and record and mix at his basement studio in Echo Park; the tracks are also aided by guests including L.A. dubsters Future Pigeon, D.C. hard-rock maestros Dead Meadow and members of the Tyde and Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Unlike Frooms more ornately detailed settings, the songs on Manzanita are generally spare affairs, more about the songs themselves and a bit less about the arrangements. These songs are a little simpler, unlike earlier ones, which tended to be long and more complex though there are two six-minute songs on this album [The Way and The Last Night of Winter]. While the bulk of the set comprises short, elusive tunes featuring just Todds rounded-crystal voice and minor-chord guitar and piano, she does somewhat oddly begin the album with the ponderously doomy The Way, on which she wails and military-industrially protests over the backward guitars and ominous stomp of Dead Meadow. Though it gives no indication of the albums general sound, the songs dolorous dread does serve to set the tone for what is to come; it also offers a good example of Todds complexity and the quietly insistent sense of peculiar symmetry that takes her music out of the mere-trad-folkie into thrillingly new hybrid realms. Shes just a bit different, in other words.
Well, Todd says, there was an earlier sequence for the songs; the guys thought maybe I shouldnt put The Way first, because its not representative of the album as a whole and itd throw people off. But there was no place else it would fit, sonically it had to start that way or it couldnt be on the album, almost. It was one of the first songs on the album that I wrote. And it just had to be first.
What If We Do, almost perversely, follows with a rolling guitar and Todd softly crooning to a potential lover to take a chance on life. The Future Pigeonbacked Casa Nova brings an easy-skanking vibe to one of Todds semitypical reflections on the shortcomings of a former flame (and her own); lest we forget that the sun is shining and the air is free, The Last Night of Winter comes on all Kodachrome horn- and string-drenched to lift our eyes to the sky.
Youll most likely be moved, however, during the moments on Manzanita when Todd sits alone with just her guitar or piano and chimes your ears with her tales of everyday life of the regrets, the longing, the recollected ecstasies, the relief of humdrum routine in their wake, the joy of swimming and not drowning in the sea of life. The classically trained singer offers these songs/stories with a vocal tone of startling purity and an unsettling calm that makes their often bleak and always tersely poetic images all the more devastating. Shell sing, I need you now to abandon me, and you know its true, and its breaking your heart.
All of which is but a small part of the ethereal enigma named Mia Doi Todd. Shes also a frequent collaborator in projects from the electronic/DJ world, such as singing on Jimmy Tamborellos Dntel EP Anywhere Anyone and DJ Nobodys upcoming disc, both also on Plug Research; Nobody recently did a remix of Manzanitas What If We Do; live dates have found her frequently performing alongside such non-folkie types as the electronic duo Languis, sampling genius Daedelus and other luminaries on L.A.s underground dub, electronic, dance and hip-hop scenes all of whom, she says, have influenced her thinking about songwriting far more than traditional folk musicians. For her next record, she wants to make something more like a Sade record, where its almost dub, and just really simple songs on top of it.
Theres simple, and theres simple.
MIA DOI TODD | Manzanita (Plug Research)
Mia Doi Todd performs at the Knitting Factory, Friday, May 20.
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